The Books – “The Way Out”

Albums by The Books have a way of creeping up on you.  They’re absolutely meant to be heard from start to finish, and you might not immediately be hooked in by the duo’s odd combination of found sound, deconstructionist folk, and electronically-manipulated guitar and cello.  But before long, the beautiful interplay between the samples, Nick Zammuto’s and Paul de Jong’s instruments, and the occasional vocal from Zammuto lends the obscure bits of audio a feeling of strange significance, which transcends their random, often nonsensical content.  In some ways, the music of The Books almost bears more similarities to conceptual collage art than to pop music as we know it—but this would slight their keen melodic sensibility and the compassionate, emotional streak that runs through all of their material.

Their fourth LP, The Way Out, draws on all these qualities from their previous albums, but sees the duo branching out a bit as well.  It’s certainly their most stylistically diverse album yet; busier, uptempo songs like “A Cold Freezin’ Night”, “I Am Who I Am” and “I Didn’t Know That” find them in unexplored territory.  These manic tracks brush shoulders with some of their prettiest songs yet—the absolutely lovely “Beautiful People”, the Reich-ian “Thirty Incoming”, and the pleasant, loping “Free Translator”.

Still, the album feels of a piece, and it has a strong overriding mood to it.  If anything, The Way Out finds their sentimental, New Age-y, pseudo-spiritual qualities more strongly accentuated than before.  The album is bookended by tracks built around group therapy audio samples, and they give a 20-second quote from Gandhi about “a living power that is changeless, that holds all together” its own track.  But their sense of humor cannot be overlooked, and anything bordering on corny is always accompanied by a wink and a nod.

Despite this more varied, song-centered approach to composition, The Way Out deserves to be listened to all at once as much as any Books release preceding it.  After the rather zany, unusual front half of the record (“I Didn’t Know That” is a work of genius, mind you), I had my doubts about whether the Books’ newest would stick with me in the same way that masterpieces Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink had the first time I heard them.  But, like I said, the album crept up on me over the course of its relaxed back half, and I began to enter that particular headspace where the pieces of their collage coalesce into something like a little snapshot of the human condition.  It’s a peculiar, abstract sort of snapshot, but a moving one nonetheless.


~ by toren on September 9, 2010.

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